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Interview: David Lynch, director

Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks, directed by David Lynch. Photo Credit: [ The Kobal Collection / Lynch-Frost/Ciby 2000

Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks, directed by David Lynch. Photo Credit: [ The Kobal Collection / Lynch-Frost/Ciby 2000

  • by Chitra Ramaswamy
 

I T’S THE night before my interview with David Lynch and I can’t sleep. I’ve been Lynched. Images of fire and smoke, red drapery and cherry pie march through my mind; the mundane and the macabre dancing their twisted Lynchian jitterbug.

It’s as though I’ve been mainlining his own brand of coffee (Signature Cup Organic House Roast, if you must know, of which he has up to 20 cups a day), and now, like the drip-drip through a filter, the black stuff is going to work on me.

The dark is a Lynchian place, home to barely-there dreams and road trips along highways bleached by passing headlights. “Time gets funny at night,” the legendary filmmaker and artist has said, and this is doubly so when you’ve spent the day listening to his debut album Crazy Clown Time, reading about him, and watching Mulholland Drive, considered by fans to be his crowning masterpiece and still, after an umpteenth viewing, a total head-scratcher.

Does Lynch like to spook us? Why does he want to touch us in that scary and sad place, a place only he knows how to find? And why do we want him to? These aren’t really questions Lynch will answer, not because he’s precious but because that would spoil the mystery. He refuses to explain his work, is interested in the journey rather than the destination, and when he does offer clues (“notice appearances of the red lampshade”, “notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup”), they only spark more questions.

Not that he sees his outlook as dark. “I love absurdity,” Lynch tells me in the robotic drawl that recalls Mel Brooks’s description of him as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”. “I like mysteries. And I like stories that have great contrasts. So you could say I like the light and the dark. And that’s sort of what makes the world go round, you know?”

What’s his view of human nature? “Well, I think what’s happening in so-called reality is quite a bit more disturbing than what you find in the cinema,” he says. “Unfortunately, there is plenty of horror in the world. But I believe the human being has grand potential and that potential is for enlightenment. But it needs unfolding. And until we unfold it, we can get into lots of trouble and we can suffer or cause suffering. It’s kind of up to us, I guess.”

Lynch is in Paris for the opening of an exhibition about art and mathematics at the Fondation Cartier, where a major retrospective of his paintings, drawings, photos and installations was held in 2007. He was a painter first, studying at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he dropped out after a year, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It was a desire to see his paintings move that led to his first short film, in 1966, which he described as “57 seconds of growth and fire and three seconds of vomit”. If these troubled feelings are in us, waiting for Lynch to come along and activate them, it seems they have always been in him too.

He is also in Paris to check out Club Silencio, which he named after the club in Mulholland Drive and is now open to the public from midnight to 6am (and the rest of the time to members only). Lynch designed everything from the 1950s-style furniture to the dream-forest-cum-smoking-room. He has now curated gigs by some of his favourite bands (Lykke Li, Kitty, Daisy & Lewis) and a mini-festival of favourite films (Sunset Boulevard, Lolita). Does he like going to clubs? “No, I don’t,” he replies. “I like to stay home and work.”

So we won’t be seeing him take to the stage, silver quiff cocked, crooning into a mic against a red curtain? He laughs. “That sounds good,” he admits. “But you’ll be waiting a long time. That’s kinda the way it is.”

He is 65 now, with three children by three wives, married for the fourth time to the 28-year-old actress Emily Stofle. She was in his last film, 2006’s Inland Empire. There are no other films forthcoming, but it doesn’t seem to bother Lynch. “Cinema is the greatest thing,” he tells me. “I just don’t have an idea now, but hopefully I will make more films.”

Is ageing affecting his outlook? “It hasn’t affected it at all,” he says. “But sometimes, when I’m down on the floor I can’t get up.” I laugh because it’s a good line, well delivered. He doesn’t.

If you find Lynch’s films frustrating, then the man probably will be too. He speaks in riddles, truisms and off-kilter metaphors. Like his films, he is without irony. And like his films, he is funny but not always intentionally. He can sound like he’s delivering a lecture on transcendental meditation, which he has practised twice a day, every day since 1974, whether you’re asking him about his childhood or the weather. (He is an amateur meteorologist and posts a daily Los Angeles weather report on his website.)

But he’s likeable and surprisingly sweet, coming across as avuncular and boyish at the same time. He has a much more sunny disposition than you’d expect, which is disarming in the way comedians are when you discover they’re serious. People who interview Lynch are either tickled pink by his strangeness or disappointed by how ordinary he seems. Mostly, we want him to be weird because there is something particularly satisfying about having a Lynchian encounter with David Lynch.

Happily, there are odd moments during our interview. Here he is on smoking, which he quit last December. “I’m not one bit happy about it,” he confesses. “I’m always saying, ‘Let’s see what Santa Claus brings in my stocking this Christmas.’ I’ve quit for 21 years before. I started smoking when I was very little and I still love it. This world is down on smokers in a strange way. They put them out in the freezing cold and then think that means they’re going to live forever.” So smokers have been scapegoated? “Big time,” he says. “And goat is the perfect word. They are goats made to go outside. Imagine the smokers in Scotland – all those goats out in the cold this winter ...” He sniffs with sympathy. I confess to him that I do it myself occasionally. He’s delighted. “Good for you,” he says. “And I may join you again. Enjoy every puff, OK?”

He is also brilliant on women. True, Lynch’s women are often objects of desire, but they are much more. They tend to be complex, mysterious and sensitive, and are often given split roles. “I see women as love objects, basically,” he says. There is a long pause, then he starts laughing. “I am joking. Women are the most fantastic creatures in the world. I think men are a bit more simple. Women are beautifully complicated and full of mystery and poetry. They are way more sensitive and they’re filled with love. They understand more about human nature and they really like to take care of men. And then they get hurt a lot. Men can’t be trusted, basically.”

Ideas usually appear to Lynch during the day, as images. He has compared receiving them to going fishing, and his book about creativity and transcendental meditation was called Catching the Big Fish. Sometimes ideas come from songs. Blue Velvet, Lynch’s fourth film, was born out of the 1950s song, which apparently conjured up images of well-tended lawns, red lips and cars. “David Bowie did a song called I’m Deranged, and just hearing that inspired the beginning of Lost Highway.” It’s almost like a kind of synaesthesia; this blurring of image and word, sound and colour. “Often lyrics come to me as a feeling,” he admits. “I guess it’s like pouring gasoline into an engine. You start the engine and it can take you to different places.”

It goes the other way too. The songs on Crazy Clown Time, a bewitching album of moody blues and low-fi electronica, are like individual stories. You can literally see them as Lynchian film stills. The sinister story of obsession in the woods (Speed Roadster). The sports outing where an infidelity is witnessed (Football Game). The car crash on the highway (Pinky’s Dream, featuring Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). In fact, Lynch has issued a series of one-line descriptions to go with each song. They are hilariously different to my own. His description of Noah’s Ark (sample lyric: “I know a song/On this dark, dark, dark, dark night ...’) is “about being saved by love”. Mine is “about sadness”.

“There is a line in ancient Vedic texts,” he says when I tell him this. “‘The world is as you are.’ That’s true. The film on the screen is the same every single time. Every frame, the same. Yet the audience sees it differently. Each person sees the same film, hears the same song, and it talks to them and them alone.” In other words, the darkness is in me, and not necessarily in him.

On the title track, Lynch sings about a party threatening to spill over into beer-soaked violence. “Susie ripped her shirt off completely,” he warbles in a southern falsetto, punctuated by the orgasmic moans of a woman. (Lynch’s vocal is distorted in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways on the album, used more like an instrument than a voice.) “Danny poured a beer over Sally.” “Buddy screamed so loud he spit.” “We all ran around the back yard.” It’s weird, erotic, frightening and oddly comic in that Lynchian way. Just when you think you might scream, you find yourself laughing.

What would the image for this song be? “Right,” says Lynch, delighted by the game. “It’s based on the idea that in America we have a thing called a barbecue, you know?” He pauses to make sure he hasn’t lost me. I start laughing. Lynch politely waits for my laughter to die and then goes on. “It sometimes happens in the back yard. So there would be a back yard with a barbecue ... There would be dogs. You would be able to see the TV playing through the window of the house. It would be playing sports games. There would be many containers of beer. There would be hot dogs. And boys and girls. Drinking lots of beer.”

Lynch has been making his own music for five years, writing, singing and playing guitar. He works at home in the Hollywood Hills, a series of concrete bunkers in part designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son. One of these is a studio where he made Crazy Clown Time with his engineer, Dean Hurley. After a hands-in-the-air dance anthem called ‘Good Day Today’ was mistaken for an Underworld song and found its way to the dancefloors of Ibiza, Rob Da Bank’s label, Sunday Best, snapped Lynch up for a whole album.

He has always made music, and his films are odysseys into sound as much as anything else. There is often a transcendent moment when characters watch someone singing on stage, whether it’s Julee Cruise doing the Twin Peaks theme ‘Falling’ in the TV series or Dennis Hopper lip-synching to Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ in Blue Velvet. Lynch co-wrote ‘In Heaven’ for Eraserhead, his first film, and wrote and sang two songs in Inland Empire.

His longest musical collaboration has been with Angelo Badalamenti, who has scored all Lynch’s work since Blue Velvet, most famously the Twin Peaks soundtrack. “I would write lyrics and he would write the music,” Lynch says. “I like to sit next to him and talk to him as he plays. I say certain words and then he interprets those words with music. And if I don’t like what I hear, I change my words. One time we sat down and came up with ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’. When we played it back Angelo suddenly started playing that piano line ...” How did Lynch react? “It was so beautiful,” he says. “I started crying.”

Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana, in 1946. His father was a research scientist for the US department of agriculture, which meant a lot of time accompanying him on expeditions into the woods (which sounds creepy, but only because it’s Lynch). His mother was a teacher and housewife. It was an idyllic childhood, despite a lot of moving around. And the 1950s have remained a huge influence; on his films, his music, his quiff and his fascination with the light, bright surface (the trimmed green lawn in the opening scene of Blue Velvet) and its dark underbelly (the severed ear in the middle of it).

Lynch spent the 1950s playing in the woods by day and watching Perry Mason with his parents by night. “Those days were filled with great dreams,” he says. “Fantastic automobiles with lots of chrome and fins and beautiful colours. A feeling of hope for the bright future.” What about the aftermath of war? “But that was behind us,” he says dreamily. “The 1950s were a clear zone. And it was the birth of rock ’n’ roll.”

The musician that has soundtracked Lynch’s own life is, he says without hesitation, Elvis. “There was this slumpy music, what you’d call big band, and it wasn’t talking to the times. Suddenly a bomb goes off in the middle of it and, when it clears, there’s Elvis Presley.”

Lynch’s parents weren’t film buffs but his dad did help to finance his first feature, Eraserhead, which took five years to make and was one of Stanley Kubrick’s favourite films. But I wonder what his parents made of his work. Did they see the light as well as the dark? Did they see his genius for speaking to the silent part of us? How he manages to soothe and scare? “Well, my mother saw Eraserhead and apparently when the film was over she said to the person next to her, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t want to have a dream like that’.” Lynch laughs and laughs at this, though I’m not sure why. We never seem to find the same things funny. “But I think some of the films might have been a bit too much for her.”

What about his dad? “He worried about me a bit. There was some concern. Like mentally. For my mental condition.” Lynch laughs again. The thought of him having a mental condition does seem a bit laughable. He seems too blissed out; too – dare I say it – balanced for any of that. And I’m not convinced his sunny disposition is down to the years of meditation alone. It seems just as likely that it’s Lynch’s vision of the world that keeps him right. It’s that he sees it all, the good and the bad, the dark and the disturbing, the love and the desire. It’s what makes him one of the most influential living artists in the world.

Did he ever worry about his mental condition? “No, never,” Lynch says, which is just as I expected. “I am in love with certain ideas, that’s all. And the euphoria continues. Whether I’m creating paintings, cinema or music, it’s a thrill. It’s just the greatest world.” And then, for once, we both laugh. n

Crazy Clown Time is released on 7 November on Sunday Best (www.davidlynch.com)

 

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